Opinion: Deliberate Ambiguity: A Geostrategic Risk

Opinion: Deliberate Ambiguity: A Geostrategic Risk

Chinese military aircraft have dramatically increased their offshore aviation activity near Taiwan since late last year. This tendency has expanded over time to encompass a variety of various kinds of military aircraft, which are often sortied in ever-increasing numbers, mostly to the island’s west and southwest. However, several planes pass via the Taiwan Strait’s midline, which connects the island to mainland China, and almost all of them enter Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). This dramatic surge in Chinese military activity near Taiwan is cause for concern, since it marks an unprecedented combination of activities heightening tensions across the Taiwan Strait.

Why is China doing this?

In 2016, China suspended diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and the island’s individual travel licenses were revoked in 2019. Additionally, Xi Jinping has raised rhetoric about seizing Taiwan and military drills, both of which are cause for alarm for the US. During his address commemorating the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial, Xi stated that “we must take resolute action to utterly defeat any attempt toward ‘Taiwan independence,’ and work together to create a bright future for national rejuvenation. No one should underestimate the resolve, the will, and the ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to plan for scenarios in the Taiwan Strait in order to dissuade, and if necessary, force, Taiwan to relinquish its independence efforts. The PLA is also likely planning for a forceful unification of Taiwan with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) while discouraging, delaying, or rejecting any third-party involvement on Taiwan’s behalf, such as the U.S and/or other like-minded allies. China has continuously undertaken military operations near Taiwan and military preparation for a Taiwan contingency as part of a comprehensive strategy to put pressure on Taiwan and the Tsai government, as well as to express its discontent with growing Washington-Taipei relations. The mainland’s continued isolation from Taiwan is presented as impeding China’s reemergence as a great power, which President Xi Jinping has termed the ‘Chinese Dream.’ The legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party is contingent upon its commitment to achieving Taiwan’s reunification with the motherland. On the mainland, it is widely believed that no Chinese leader could continue in power if he permitted Taiwan to secede from the PRC and be recognized as an independent sovereign state by the world community.

Over the last several months, there has been a steady increase in the number of Chinese combat aircraft that are crossing the midline of the Taiwan Strait. China has increasingly been sending strike packages (bombers, fighters, electronic surveillance, and warfare aircraft) towards Taiwan. The move by China is unprecedented given the fact that they have sent 150 aircraft (including anti-submarine planes and bombers) towards Taiwan. It has become evident that China wants to send a political and military message to Taiwan, the US, and the United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). China is doing this because it wants Taiwan to renounce any possibility of independence and acknowledge that they are a part of China. China also seeks to intimidate the US into essentially giving up on Taiwan. Taiwan is China’s principal target, both geographically and ideologically, since it is at the core of the First Island Chain. China views Taiwan’s wealthy democracy as a challenge to its authoritarian system. Breaking apart the island republic would make it easier for the PLA to threaten, and eventually take, military action against neighboring Japan and the Philippines, by applying pressure from various angles to their long, exposed coasts.

What might the U.S. do?

The US has passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which commits the US to maintaining extensive, cordial, and commercial connections with Taiwan. Additionally, it demands that Washington provide Taiwan with weapons capable of maintaining a robust self-defense capability. The legislation also requires the president to notify Congress immediately of any danger to Taiwan’s security, social, or economic system. If that occurs, the President and Congress will decide on an appropriate reaction. One of the conditions of establishing diplomatic ties with the PRC in the 1970s was that the US not recognize Taiwan as an independent nation. This was stated clearly in the Shanghai Communiqué 1972: “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.”

The US is Taiwan’s primary ally, although the two countries do not have official diplomatic ties. The US is Taiwan’s largest arms supplier, has extensive economic links with the island, and is thus likely to protect it. The Biden administration sold Taiwan $750 million worth of self-propelled artillery in August. The US’ relations with Taiwan are not similar to our relations with Japan or South Korea. The US practices what are known as deliberate ambiguity policies, which essentially leaves China wondering: what will the US do?

The US is not explicit in what it would do in the case Taiwan is attacked. Republican lawmaker, Tom Cotton supports strategic decoupling in semiconductors, 5G and beyond telecommunications technology, key medications, and critical rare earth minerals utilized in defensive weapons such as fighter jet navigational systems and electric vehicle batteries. The Brookings Institution proposes an alternative strategy, namely that although decoupling from China may seem tempting, it is a losing strategy in the long run, since America’s allies would not follow suit, leaving the US alone politically. They argue the US must fight China’s aggression toward Taiwan by maintaining a robust military presence and holding China accountable for undermining and violating international laws and norms.

Bipartisanship and pro-Taiwan policies

Republican Senators have submitted legislation to grant an annual $2 billion in foreign military financing to enhance Taiwan’s defenses as Beijing’s pressure on the self-ruled island grows. Through 2032, the measure would provide grants and loans for the acquisition of US-made weapons and defense equipment. Additionally, the Taiwan Deterrence Act would change the current Arms Export Control Act of 1976, which regulates foreign military sales, to make it simpler for US companies to sell arms to Taiwan. Also, a yearly evaluation of Taiwan’s efforts to strengthen its defense policy against China would be required. While the measure is only backed by senators from the minority party, it adds to congressional pressure on the Biden administration to take further steps to boost relations with diplomatically isolated Taipei.

The Biden administration has often indicated its readiness to bolster relations with Taiwan and protect the island in the event of a Chinese invasion, thus upholding Trump administration policy. Biden has made it clear that he has no intention of overthrowing China’s Communist Party and replacing it with a system that adheres to international law. Rather, the goal seems to be to preserve the status quo, which entails maintaining all Pacific nations’ sovereignty, regional allies’ territorial integrity, including Taiwan’s, and the international system’s freedom of navigation (FON). The majority of Democrats, as well as Republicans, agree that China is now the United States’ greatest national security danger. They envision an increase in the likelihood of war between the two nations, with Taiwan serving as the likely cause. 

Categories: Asia Pacific, China, Security

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